The invention of Jewish majority (or: Jewish and Democratic, how did it all begin?)

The original post was posted on June. 13, 2009. Translation by Hava Oz.

When thinking of our political reality as Jews in Israel, it is taken for granted for us today to consider Israel as both Jewish and democratic. However, in order for the terms ‘Jewish’ and ‘Democratic’ to co-abide we need a Jewish majority (and only then worry about the minority). Without a Jewish majority, the state takes the form, either of a ruling Jewish minority, i.e. non-democratic; or the ruling of a non-Jewish majority (not necessarily Arabs, but also Russian immigrants, refugees, etc.) – i.e. the country will be democratic, but not Jewish-by-definition. So when we speak about a Jewish-democracy, we are actually talking about the need for a ‘Jewish majority’.

This concept, which lies at the heart of modern Zionism, was not always central to the movement. Zionism existed before the ‘Jewish majority’, and may still exist afterwards. The idea which seems so obvious, that the only way to realize Zionism is through a Jewish majority, is therefore actually a later political construct created by some politicians.

Historization: Zionism without a ‘Jewish majority’

The concept of a need for a ‘Jewish majority’ is connected firstly to the solution for the ‘Jewish problem’ through sovereignty. This itself was debated between Herzl and Echad ha Am. However, even years after their deaths the concepts of – a solution through sovereignty, in Eretz-Israel in particular, with a Jewish majority – was not the official approach of Zionism, even in the later stages of the Yishuv. In 1931 the revisionist party quit the Zionist movement because the movement refused(!) to declare that a sovereign state is the only solution and the goal of the movement. The change, as we will see below, came in the form of the Biltmore Program in 1942, in which some of the other streems changed their minds, and the need for a Jewish majority became the one and only path. Therefore, should we wish to examine how ‘the Jewish majority’ concept became unquestioned, and should we wish to examine alternatives and critisism to this, we should to return to the period between WWI (1914) and the founding of Israel (1948).

WWI spurred on by a rising tide of patriotism introduced “enlightened Europe” and the world at large – to killing by the million, trench warfare with mandatory conscription, and technology for mass killing, including airplanes, machine-guns and tanks. Slaughter on the battle field also brought about new attitudes regarding prevention of war: the democratic right hallowed liberty, trade and the new world order (“human rights” and international law), the democraitc left, including the intellectuals and many Jews attracted to leftist thought, thought that nationalism, ethnicity and genetic links, are not the solution, but rather the problem. These ideas were also expressed within the Zionist debates. Prof. Martin Buber, philosopher, sociologist, Chasidism researcher and delegate at the Zionist conference, wrote in 1918:

[Translator’s note: translated through the Hebrew translation]

“[…] a few days ago I had a conversation with Dr. [Viktor] Jacobson [(board member of the World Zionist Organization)] on what should be done in Eretz-Israel; when I had finished I was down cast. “As soon as possible, and by any possible means, we must create a Jewish majority in the land”… – on hearing such a statement the heart skips a beat […] most Zionists today are unbridled nationalists (in the European style), imperialistic, and even merchantilistic in their worship of success. […] if we do not establish an authoritative opposing force, the movements soul will be corrupted, maybe forever.”

As one can see, very shortly after the Balfour Declaration (1917) a Jewish majority was already on the agenda, although it was under bitter dispute. During the 20’s nationalistic ideology expanded in the Zionist movement, but the idea of a demographic majority remained under debate.  In 1926, while the Jews only made up a fifth of the population in the country, in another article by Buber published by the important Zionist journal: Jüdische Rundschau (the editor, Dr. Weltsch, also supported Buber’s position). It included the following:

[Translator’s note: translated through the Hebrew translation]

“What slogan, what call to action, is required in this situation, and what slogan have we adopted and cried? That which we have adopted calls for the establishment of a [Jewish] majority [in Israel]. This entity does nothing but reverse the problematic situation we are in – that is, it allows us to do there [in Israel] what others are doing unto us here [in the diaspora]. Can such an entity extricate us from this problematic situation?”

Joseph Sprinzak (future chairman of the Knesset) out of concern regarding new fascistic tendencies springing up in the Zionist movement, and regarding the attempt to upset the organization of workers in the settlement, urged Buber to appear before the congress in 1929, and Buber acquiesced.

[Translator’s note: translated through the Hebrew translation]

“Many say that we do not want to be a minority ruling a majority, myself amongst them. However, if by this they mean that they do not want to be subordinated to a majority of others, and want a majority of our own to rule the others, I do not agree. Rather we should say: as we do not wish to be dominated by a majority of others, so too we do not wish to dominate others with a majority of our own.”

Other Zionist professors, such as, Gershom Scholem, Akiba Ernst Simon, Hans Kohn, Yehuda Leib Magnes, Robert Weltsch, Samuel Hugo Bergman and many more were of the same mind.

((The first text is taken from Buber’s letter to Bergman, following the play ‘Jeremiah’ by the Jewish play write Stefan Zweig. The play debuted at the height of the war in 1917, and won much popularity. It portrayed the war in Europe as the fulfillment of the militaristic prophecy of the prophet Jeremiah. It was a eulogy of sorts to humanities and ethics above real-politik. Regarding Buber’s speech in response to Jewish revenge following the events of 1929 – Prof. Hans Kohn, one of the great national thinkers, resigned from the Zionist movement only months later, stating that Zionism is not Judaism. In his resignation letter, he described the events of 1929 as a colonial uprising, in disregard of the Arabs, and in defiance of agreements with the British)).

Consolidation of the ‘Jewish Majority’ as a central Zionist pillar

As stated, the major change to the Zionist movement occurred during WWII. Due to the plight of the European Jews and the systematic murder that started in 1941, an emergency congress was convened in Biltmore, USA. This was the first time that a plan was drawn up which all denominations within the Zionist movement committed to act upon. Up until 1942 the Zionist movement was indeed a ‘movement’ (if a little institutionalized). Its policies where whatever its activists made them to be. However, the Biltmore Program formulated for the first time a fixed and binding agenda as the policy of the movement. The program was short and included 8 points: an independent army in the Jewish settlement, with its own flag, under the UN, opening the country to free immigration (of Jews; although most European Jews immigrated to the USA, and with no explanation of why the Arabs should have to bear the burden of solving European anti-Semitism). Also mentioned were: the need to destroy Hitlerite Europe, the need for a new world order, and the achievements of the Jewish settlement. The important point for our discussion is the demand not only to promote a ‘national home’, as stated in the Balfour Declaration (1917), but to found a ‘Jewish Commonwealth’ [sic] in Palestine.

It is important to note that the Biltmore Program was the Zionist answer to the British Two-State Solution. The British plan took shape under the Peel Commission Report on the protests of the Arabs in Palestine (the Jews accepted this report with reservations, knowing that the Arabs would reject it), and later in the White Paper of 1939. Like today, the central requirement of the Two-State plan was a settlement freeze – a demand to stop creating facts on the ground – because such activity supplants the Arabs and creates hostility and war. In Palestinian eyes, the Jews were a ‘demographic threat’ because of their continued immigration and desire for governance and control. The Palestinians did not have added numbers that could and would immigrate to the region to ‘balance’ the scales. (The number of Jews in Israel grew from 75 thousand in 1925 to over 500 thousand in 1942; a growth of 670% in 17 years.) From the Palestinian point of view (especially those who were either politically aware or tenant farmers whom lost their lands to Zionists), the land on which they had been living for generations was being filled with European Jews under colonial approval. The British for their part, despite a lack of consistency, understood that they cannot create two states as long as the Jews are attempting to control the whole land, and ordered a halt in immigration (which they at first encouraged, since they did not want refugees in England, especially not Jewish refugees). In other words, the British allowed ‘natural growth’ to the Jewish settlement in the existing colonies, but also tried to limit as much as possible changing of reality on the ground, and to stop the displacement of the Palestinians.

Like today – the Zionist response in the form of the Biltmore Program was to postpone the two-state solution, to continue to grab more and more land and to continue to bring more Jews to the settlement. However, when the plan was consolidated the Jews made up less than a third of the population on the land (about half a million people). So how can the minority govern the whole province? And how can they do that while European Jewry is becoming extinct, and the Zionist leadership is being ‘attacked’ for not concentrating its efforts on ‘saving’ European Jewry? The Zionist leadership decided to concentrate on the security of the few Jews in the Israeli settlement, which was at risk of becoming a war front, and the demographic solution came from a different direction.

About the time of the Biltmore Program, Ben-Gurion exhibited a new demographic plan at a conference in Rehovot. “The Million Plan” was the first to deal with immigration of eastern Jewry. Due to the understanding that European Jewry was marching to extinction, many Zionist leaders expressed on different occasions an intention to invest in ‘quantitative’ immigration of Middle Eastern Jewry (instead ‘qualitative’ immigration from Europe). Most of the Zionist leaders (= European) were in tune with the racist note of the proposal (despite the fact that there were many poor Jews in Europe and many philosophers, writers, genius, and rich etc. Jews in Islamic countries), and the list of quotes is extensive. In fact, up until this point there was little interest in Sefaradic/Mizrahi Jewry. All the founding fathers of Zionism and all 246 members of the first Zionist congress were European – mostly east European.

Apart from “The Million Plan” there were other proposals that dealt with transfer of the Arabs, in addition to a campaign of excluding them from the land (buying of property), wage differences, and ‘occupation of labor and guarding’ which excluded them economically.

[…] and now we have been “attacked”. Who has attacked us? Those who themselves felt attacked by us, that is, attacked by our peaceful occupation. They accuse us of ‘robbing them’ – and how do we reply? “This is our land of 2000 years ago, in which we achieved greatness”. Do we expect this statement to be accepted without hesitation? Would we do so in their position? […] The truth is that we began the attack ‘peacefully’ when we started to infiltrate the country.

(Martin Buber, 1948, “An End to The Prattle”, Be’ayot ha-Zman (Current issues))

Either way, the practical solutions for creating and sustaining a Jewish majority were consolidated during the 40’s. It was made clear that it is only a matter of time before a war breaks out for the land. This is how the concept that there is no Zionism without a ‘Jewish majority’ was formed, along with a practical plan on how to create the majority.

Creating an Artificial Majority

On the eve of the 1947-48 war there were 650, 000 Jews and about twice as many Palestinians on the land. Even though the Jews were a third of the population, and even though they succeeded in purchasing, either privately or through national institutions only about 6-7% of the land, the UN recommended giving most of the land (55%) to the Jews (amongst other things for the absorption of refugees from Europe, without asking the residents or the Jewish refugees what they thought about it). The partition plan would in effect place under Jewish governance a population of which 50% were supposed to be non-Jews. Under these conditions the Partition Plan naturally seemed unfair and untenable to the Arabs – and they rejected it completely. (Many Zionists were very pleased with it and even more pleased that the Arabs rejected it). The demographic change only came during the war, in which the Jews had an advantage in training, weapons, and recruitment. The capture of territory that was never intended for the Jews, ‘voluntary’ flight of the non-Jewish population, as well as forced flight, expulsion and refusal of the right to return all contributed to demographic change.

Today the ‘Jewish majority’ is considered legitimate. It is legitimate because it is in control (that is – legitimate in the eyes of the Jews). It is in control because it is a majority and because it is considered legitimate. Creating a majority, control, and legitimacy are all inter-connected in the collective conscious. However, the Jewish majority is not – and never was – “natural”. It is a majority that we created through a desire for control, whilst simultaneously representing it as if it were a natural fact of reality, something to be taken for granted.

The Jewish majority was and is created by people and is continually sustained through:

  1. “Encouragement” of Jewish immigration and handing out of ‘return’ benefits. (Excluding the late 20’s during which ‘undesirables’ i.e.; the handicapped, the old and the poor were encouraged to leave due to the economic crisis in Israel – see Margalit, 1999, Yahadut Zmanenu (Contemporary Judaism) 13:243-280).
  2. Expulsion, chasing away, and denial of ‘return’ to Palestinians (by money, by scare campaigns, by dissemination of rumors, by shelling around villages, by destruction of villages and houses, and by prevention of return to homes that have just been left). Rules preventing return are still valid today also regarding displaced Israeli citizens, as if a person who leaves does so of his own free will (as if European Jews left their home countries ‘willingly’). – This especially during the war of 1947-48, but also a little during 1967 and after.
  3. Disenfranchisement of all residents in occupied territory, including east Jerusalem, if the person is not Jewish. – Since 1967.
  4. Denial of citizenship through marriage, or residency for Arabs. – Since 2003.
  5. Encouragement of migration of Palestinians from the land (from the occupied territories and from inside the green line), through not investing in infrastructure, creation of poverty, denial of permanent residency in Jerusalem for different reasons, restrictive procedures on buying land and on building permits, increased enforcement of house demolition, expropriation of land, discrimination and sometimes violence.
  6. ‘Encouragement’ of Jewish birth and life extension (differences in health and in health promoting factors between populations), health promoting factors are compromised within and without of the green line.
  7. Segregation in defining identity “top-bottom”. A citizen cannot define for herself if she is Jewish or Palestinian (self identification), rather she is defined as one or the other from birth by the state. (thanks to Ofra)
  8. Maintaining the will to be a majority – there is no point in an accidental Jewish majority. A majority that wants to be a majority, to remain a majority, and to practice its supremacy over the minority – is constanly required and maintained.
  9. Nonconscription of a the minority to the army.
  10. Legitimization and self convincing exercises, such as ignoring the Jewish majority that does not want to come to Israel, ignoring historical and archeological evidence that undermines the historical story and statistical manipulations that are supposed to strengthen the legitimization.

Immediately after the creation of the majority in the war of 1948, Ben-Gurion gathered intellectuals. At the meeting Buber turned to Ben-Gurion (who himself suggested a federal two-state plan in 1931), congratulated him and proposed that he do an “Obama Act”:

[…] and in what manner shall a man inspire morality, when he stands at the head of the state? […] for instance, the question of the Arab refugees. It was in the power of the government, and perhaps still is, to commit an act of deep morality that may inspire the public, and who’s affect on the world will certainly not be to our detriment. We could initiate an international gathering, an inter-religious gathering, of cooperation between us and our neighbors – an unprecedented gathering. I do not speak of concessions of one kind or another. The most important thing is that we be the ones to initiate an act – for were we not refugees in the Diaspora?

(March 1949)

The gathering, of course, never took place.

Why do we need a Jewish majority anyways?

“Because society has stopped considering alternatives it feels exempt from the obligation to test, to demonstrate, and to justify the validity of its hidden assumptions”. (Cornelius Castoriades, Prof. of Political Science, Economics and Philosophy).

“Jewish and democratic” means “a Jewish majority”, and if we analyze the “Jewish majority”, we will find that it means control. Control is bought through laws and norms, the laws and norms are defined by a predetermined majority, which wins through its control over weapons and the definition of law, which relies on the legitimization of a majority rule, and so on and so forth. Justification of control is circular and arises from control itself. In any other place, were an ethnic group to win the elections over and over again though disenfranchisement, definition of the law, and control of arms, we would not consider their election as a democratic victory. So too the “Jewish majority” does not really allow a synthesis between “Jewish” and “democratic”, but prefers one and pays lip service to the other.

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5 Responses to The invention of Jewish majority (or: Jewish and Democratic, how did it all begin?)

  1. Pingback: מתי ואיך הומצא "הרוב היהודי" – או – "יהודית-ודמוקרטית" איפה זה הכול התחיל? « אמת מארץ ישראל

  2. Eyal Niv says:

    Liberman: whenever there was a clash between universal-democratic values and Jewish values, Jewish values overtook.

  3. Pingback: Please, don’t send your child to “Birthright Israel”! « Truth from Eretz Yisrael

  4. I came to similar conclusion 9+ years ago when was doing my research for, click below

    I wrote about the three stages Zionism went through, and I credit Jabotinsky for shaping the Zionist response to the “Arab Problem”. I agree the Baltimore conference is the place where the 3rd stage of Zionism was articulated but based on my research they reached that conclusion by the late 1920s, and it was re-enforced in the early 30s, and it came to the surface during the Peel Plan especially while discussing the forcible transfer of the indigenous population..

    Good article; hats off; few people wrote about this.

    Abu al-Sous (Salah Mansour)
    Chicago – USA

  5. Eyal says:

    Abu Al Sous,

    You might want to look into a fantastic history book, done with research in archives, by Prof Avi Shlaim (Oxford, UK) – which basically argues the same thing, that Jabotinsky shaped Zionist politics in his Iron Wall piece. It actually makes sense that things became first acceptable among active Zionists, and only then the political decision was made.

    Thanks for the kind message!

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